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Activists Protest TIAA-CREF's SRI Policy


Trustees of TIAA-CREF's socially responsible investment products beware. You may soon find dozens of activists outside your home, protesting the company's practices and waving picket signs.

That's right, picket signs. In a rare collision between the business of old-school social protest and the business of offering investment products, a group lead by a Manchester College professor has resorted to staging protests at the homes of TIAA-CREF trustees. They are trying to persuade the company to change its approach to socially responsible investing, otherwise known as SRI.

The activists are longstanding investors, mostly through retirement vehicles, in TIAA-CREF's Social Choice variable annuity and mutual fund products. They want the company to begin choosing stocks based on good things that companies do, such as avoiding the use of overseas sweat shops or supporting low-income housing. TIAA-CREF currently uses what's known as a negative screening process for its SRI products, weeding out companies that, for example, manufacture tobacco products.

The fight has lasted for at least two years. Both sides see the other as intractable. Meetings have been called. Nothing has changed. TIAA-CREF won't budge and the activists seem intent on not giving up until the company gives in.

The group, led by Neil Wollman, a retired psychology professor and member of the Peace Studies Institute faculty at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., has already staged protests at TIAA-CREF's New York headquarters as well as the residences of two of the company's board members, Wollman said.

Last Thursday a group of about 30 protestors planned to demonstrate outside the New York apartment building of trustee Edes Gilbert. They were to be joined by members from other activist organizations, such as Students for a Free Tibet, Free Burma and Global Sweatshop Coalition, that want TIAA-CREF to stop investing in stocks of companies that use sweatshop labor or support allegedly brutal international regimes.

An announcement of the upcoming demonstration reads: "Residents of [Gilbert's] apartment building will be mailed a letter talking about a mystery resident ... who could help direct billions of dollars to more responsible use."

"We think we can do good with our money," Wollman said in an interview last week. "It's not something that's that strange."

This isn't the first time Wollman and his group, which he estimates to include hundreds of educators and activists, have scrapped with TIAA-CREF. Nearly 20 years ago, the group lobbied the firm to develop an SRI product. That battle lasted nearly four years. In the end, the activists got their way.

Then, two years ago, the group surfaced again to persuade TIAA-CREF to switch to positive screening. They've also lobbied the company to change some of its corporate governance practices.

But why pick on TIAA-CREF when surely other firms engage in similar practices? And why not switch investment vehicles? Wollman said that, because some of the company's products are tailored toward educators, he's stuck with his TIAA-CREF retirement account. And besides, the 51-year-old Wollman said he's an activist at heart. If he can get an industry leader like TIAA-CREF to switch to positive screening, others may follow.

TIAA-CREF, meanwhile, says positive screening isn't feasible. In a statement, the company said "TIAA-CREF does not express approval or disapproval of any particular business activity or company. We simply provide investors with an opportunity to place their funds in a vehicle that utilizes various negative screens.'"

In addition, the firm's SRI products are beholden to the Investment Company Act of 1940, the statement said, "which restricts fund investments to securities that can be given a precise value on a daily basis.